Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Christmastime clemency is a joke, but pardons could be meaningful remedy for 'government overreach'

Governor Rick Perry's office announced its annual Christmas pardons yesterday, granting eight pardons for extremely petty, mostly long-ago offenses.

I've come to be incredibly frustrated with this Christmastime pardon ritual, for reasons ably articulated in a recent blog post by P.S. Ruckman: "Christmastime pardons send a very wrongheaded - if not outright dangerous - signal to the American people that pardons are something like Christmas gifts, passed out during the holiday season, to those who actually may, or may not deserve them. Which is to say, it is no wonder the DOJ and OPA are so shy about pardons. The very timing of them implies their work re the assessment of pardon applications is a joke."

Indeed, it's hard to not consider these pardons a "joke" when you look at the details. E.g., a 73-year old man was granted clemency for a theft conviction from 1955. If the governor had waited any longer he might have had to issue his second ever posthumous pardon. Another pardon recipient spent three days in jail 31 years ago for unlawfully carrying a handgun. If it's true that justice delayed is justice denied, these latter-day pardons hardly constitute justice.

And why pardon one individual who "was convicted of possession of marihuana in 1971 at the age of 21"? What does it really matter if someone is pardoned who received a probated sentence 40 years ago? There are hundreds of thousands of others in the exact same position, after all, who will never benefit from such gubernatorial largesse.

In 2009, 57.9% of all drug arrests in Texas were for marijuana - a total of 69,956 adults. Similar numbers are arrested for marijuana possession annually, and there's no reason to believe this one individual is any more deserving than others who've been arrested for that offense. Issuing a pardon on a 40 year old pot charge is insulting not just to the person pardoned but to the hundreds of thousands of other people similarly positioned who did not receive clemency. If the Governor is going to issue pardons for such petty offenses, the only fair thing to do would be to pardon entire classes of offenders - for example, pot offenders with no other convictions on their record.

In his recent essay, "The Conservative Case for the Pardon Power," Ruckman suggested just such a systematic use of pardons as a remedy to governmental overreach in the War on Drugs: "It is the president [ed. note: and governors] who should now consider the careful, systematic use of the pardon power (or, more specifically, commutations of sentence) in individual cases - at a minimum - for first time, non-violent offenders who have already served considerable sentences and show evidence of rehabilitation (just as an example). In addition to approximating fairness, such use of the pardon power could save tax payers millions of dollars." Citing such class-wide applications of pardon power in the past, Ruckman observes that, "It is quite obvious that, if Conservative presidents (and governors) ever decide to get serious about addressing the problems associated with government overreach, the pardon power is there, waiting."

I'm not holding my breath for Governor Perry to begin to make clemency a more meaningful remedy for "government overreach," but there's a strong case to be made that he can and should treat the pardon power as more than just a token Christmastime genuflection to values of mercy and forgiveness, which are then ignored in practice throughout the rest of the year.

RELATED: How the Grinch stole clemency: Christmastime pardons trivialize process

UPDATE: Via Pardon Power, I noticed this story about clemency policy in Georgia,  where their Board of Pardons and Paroles "issued 561 pardons in fiscal 2010 that ended June 30," which is more than three times the number Rick Perry has given out during his entire tenure. Thirty eight percent of requested pardons are granted in Georgia. "Margaret Colgate Love, a former pardons official at the U.S. Justice Department and author of a book on state pardons, said Georgia is near the top of a group of 17 states that grant a substantial number of pardons each year. Most states seldom grant them, she said" to the Atlanta Constitution-Journal.

MORE: From CNN, see commentary from Kemba Smith Pradia, who argues that "Obama should commute the sentences of many people serving egregiously long sentences for crack cocaine offenses."


Anonymous said...

What? No mention of the Third Court of Appeals putting a halt to the Charlie Baird "court of inquiry" on the Willingham matter?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Sorry, I've got to do my Christmas shopping sometime. I was planning to pick it up in a coming roundup.

Besides, you apparently didn't need me to tell you about it. :)